National security | Southeast Asia

4 April 2016

Superficially it looks as though Southeast Asia is the major hot spot for piracy. But if you look closer than the absolute numbers of attacks, a different picture emerges, Sam Bateman writes.

Superficially it looks as though Asia, and more specifically Southeast Asia, is the major global hot spot for piracy. The Annual Report for 2015 from the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) shows that of the 246 actual and attempted incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2015, 202 occurred in Asian waters. Of these 108 were in Indonesian waters, 70 elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and 24 in the Indian sub-continent. In comparison, 31 attacks occurred off West Africa and there were no attacks at all in waters off Somalia – the previous hot spot for piracy.

However, these statistics don’t necessarily show that piracy is a great problem in Asia. Absolute numbers of attacks give a misleading impression of the situation. It’s important to get behind the statistics and look at the nature of the attacks, what ships are being attacked, whether they are at anchor or underway, and where the attacks are occurring.

Here the data reported by the Information Sharing Centre (ISC) set up in Singapore by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) is more useful than that from the IMB. It reported 200 incidents in Asia in 2015, comprising 187 actual incidents and 13 attempted incidents.

ReCAAP classifies each attack according to the level of violence used and the economic loss incurred. The PRC on the other hand, does not classify incidents and counts an incident of petty theft as equivalent to a very serious incident, involving the hijacking of a ship and possible violence against her crew. Of the 200 attacks reported by ReCAAP in 2015, 153 were categorised as minor incidents involving no harm to the crew and only petty theft.

Differentiating between incidents of ‘piracy’ and what the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) defines as ‘armed robbery against ships’ is important. Piracy occurs on board ships on the high seas, while armed robberies against ships occur in waters within a State’s sovereign jurisdiction – its internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea. Most incidents in Asian waters are in fact ones of ‘armed robbery against ships’ and thus the responsibility of the relevant coastal state to take enforcement action. The strict definition of piracy establishes piracy as ‘a crime against humanity’ outside the jurisdiction of a coastal state against which any state is entitled to take action.

It’s important also to distinguish between attacks on vessels underway (‘steaming’) and those at anchor or in port. Absolute figures that do not comprehend the status of ships when attacked can lead to misleading assessments. The vulnerability of a ship underway depends on factors such as ship size, speed, freeboard and size of crew, with small ships generally being more vulnerable than larger vessels. The vulnerability of a ship at anchor, stopped, or in port does not depend on its size and type. Any ship at all may be attacked while stopped if the appropriate precautions are not taken and vigilance exercised.

In recent years, some small coastal tankers have been hijacked in Southeast Asia for several days while some or all of their cargo, usually marine gas oil, is siphoned off into another vessel. The number of these attacks increased significantly in 2014 but fell away in 2015 with no incidents of this nature since September 2015. These attacks constituted transnational crime requiring close cooperation onshore between regional police forces to deal with them. With increased cooperation, these attacks should continue falling away. Links established between INTERPOL and ReCAAP should help in this regard.

In 2015, a significant number of ‘hit and run’ type attacks occurred on vessels proceeding slowly in Singapore Strait, mostly in the eastbound lane of the traffic separation scheme, which mainly passes through Indonesian sovereign waters. Most were cases of petty theft. No incidents of this nature have occurred since November 2015.

A high level of cooperation now exists in the Malacca and Singapore straits to counter piracy and armed robbery against ships. Relevant activities include air surveillance flights and coordinated sea patrols of the Malacca Strait by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Within Singapore Strait, the Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrol (ISCP) arrangement coordinates patrols, including SURPIC II, a coordinated real-time surveillance picture of the strait.

While piracy and sea robbery remain problems in parts of Asia, the threat should be kept in perspective. Most ships transiting regional waters are not at risk unless they slow down or anchor in areas where attacks occur. Security in some regional ports and anchorages, particularly in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Indian sub-continent, remains a problem, but this may be improving. Earlier fears of a conflation between piracy and maritime terrorism have not materialised.

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One Response

  1. Reubs says:

    When someone breaks into your home you call the police for immediate response. You don’t consider any such invasion of your home as petty. Why should sailors see boarding, breaking and entry for the purpose of a crime, no matter how minor, be considered petty?
    ReCAAP moved away from calling it ‘petty theft’ by such reasoning.
    The territorial waters of Asia are often too close to determine that an incident may be classified as piracy, nevertheless, the victims do not feel it is minor.
    ReCAAP reports on one region (which not all states are signed up to), whilst IMB covers the global regions of risk against boarding & robbery.
    If cooperation is the key to reducing such crimes, why haven’t all parties worked more closely together?
    Your attempt to lessen the notion of risk is somewhat specious and appears more like pandering to Asia’s economic wellbeing in the eyes of the international community, rather than reality.

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Bateman, S. (2016). The true story of piracy in Asia - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: